Badger, Badger, Badger …

It’s a debate that’s got everyone talking; animal rights activists, farmers, scientists and politicians. Yes, it’s about the dear old badger, and Government plans to tackle the spread of tuberculosis in cows through culling. Bovine TB has become a serious problem for British livestock and currently costs the taxpayer £100m a year. It is well-known that badgers act as a reservoir of infection, and farmers are desperate for measures to control badger populations and help prevent their livestock from becoming infected. So the Government has in the last few weeks confirmed that they are to go ahead with pilots for allowing farmers to use marksmen to shoot badgers in their areas, with wider use planned for 2013.

One of the most interesting points about this debate is how polarised people’s views are on the plans. People either love or hate badgers, which then dictates their opinion on the culling plans. Animal rights groups are obviously up in arms, and polls also suggest that the general public is against the policy. This is unsurprising when we think of how the animal is embraced in British culture, as many a much-loved character from popular children’s books, television programmes, and bizarre internet virals about dancing badgers (“badger, badger, badger!”). And aside from the threat to their livestock, farmers and rural communities have other reasons to hate badgers, seeing them as irritating pests that cause crop damage.

As much as people may either love or hate the thought of badgers being shot, it’s dangerous to use these lines of argument in forming an opinion on a separate issue, which is on the method of tackling a harmful disease. Instead, the questions we need to ask are whether badger culling can stop Bovine TB, whether it’s cost-effective against what we’re already spending on the disease, and what robust scientific evidence there is for the Government to base this policy on.

Unfortunately, despite the Government’s recent decision on the badger cull pilots, we are still yet to see any genuine scientific basis for this policy. So in the next few postings of this blog, we will run through how the badger control policy has been developed, and see how the ‘science’ referred to by successive Governments is, at best, shakey, and at worst, the manipulation of scientific advice for political purposes. The badger debate is a classic example of how Governments are given authoritative and professional advice, but then make a final, and arguably ill-advised, decision to appease certain members of an electorate.

Let’s start by looking at the only available data on the impact of badger culling on Bovine TB. The Randomised Badger Cull Trial (RBCT) was carried out for 8 years by DEFRA in 30 high-risk TB areas in England. The study was under the guidance of an Independent Scientific Group (ISG) consisting of a range of experts in fields such as animal health, epidemiology, immunology and agricultural economics, and overseen by an independent statistical auditor. The trial measured the incidence of TB in cows following the use of two badger cull methods; ‘proactive culling’, where culling was carried out across all available land, and ‘reactive culling’, where badgers were only culled near farmland where recent Bovine TB outbreaks had occurred.

With proactive culling, while a 23% reduction of TB incidence was observed inside the cull area, there was also a 25% increase in TB incidence on neighbouring un-culled land. This was due to the ‘pertubation effect’, which is when culling disrupts badgers’ social organisation, making the blighters run away and carry the TB bacterium to other farms. And with reactive culling, the effects of pertubation were so disastrous that it led to a 27% increase in incidences of the disease, forcing Ministers to suspend this part of the trial due to concerns for livestock safety.

So, in June 2007, the ISG delivered their final report and advised the then Labour Environment Secretary, David Miliband, that “badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain”, and instead suggested that cattle-based control measures alone would reverse the disease. Seems simple, doesn’t it? So how can culling possibly now go ahead in the face of such strong evidence?

Well, the ISG’s conclusions sparked outrage from the farming and veterinary professions who had long supported badger culling. Then a month later, Sir David King, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, submitted his own report with a re-interpretation of the RBCT data, concluding that the removal of badgers could make a significant contribution to the control of Bovine TB. Quite a change of stance. Could this convenient change of opinion have been in response to the negative reaction from farming communities? Whether this was an honest new interpretation of data or coercion by political forces is unclear. However, there are several facts that ought to be considered. Firstly, the King Report was subject to neither peer review nor independent statistical auditors. Secondly, the ISG experts were not made aware of the King Report until it was published. And finally, despite the authority of his position, Sir David King’s profession was as a physical chemist, and not a biologist or epidemiologist. It therefore begs the question why anyone, especially a Government, would choose this rushed re-interpretation of data over the well-considered advice of the field experts in the ISG.

The scientific community’s response to the King report was one of outrage, with the science publication Nature even commenting that the mishandling of the issue by David King was an example to governments of how not to deal with scientific advice.

The official reason behind these differences in opinion was that, while the ISG were tasked with presenting Ministers with scientifically-based policy options which would be “technically … and economically acceptable”, King’s brief did not extend to considering economic or other practical issues. But experts stress how relevant such factors are in determining how, where and on what scale badger culling could be conducted, and therefore absolutely critical in determining whether culling could reduce TB.

Clearly, any risk, such as that of the pertubation effect, could be overcome if culling was implemented using unlimited resources to the extent that every infected badger was culled. So, by allowing King to work within such a wide scope and exclude consideration of major issues, the Government was able to gain the ‘scientific’ endorsement of any desired option, even though there would have been insufficient resources for badger culling to produce the desired effect when actually implemented. And according to the ISG, “Ministers severely hampered [David King’s] ability to inform policy development.”

And that’s just the beginning. In my next post, we’ll see how the current Coalition Government continues to skew the science behind the cull …

7 thoughts on “Badger, Badger, Badger …

  1. Effectively, the King report was a peer review of the ISG’s report. It did involve people with knowledge of baders and epidemiology rather than just someone with knowledge of chemistry. Although a fair bit of the ISG report had already been through peer review (in terms of publications) other bits hadnt, so the peer review process wasnt as out of order as is suggested here. What maybe was out of order was the way it was handled. Maybe the limitations of the King report say a lot more about peer review (both in government and in general), rather than anything specific to this case? As for the King report not being peer reviewed: it was. The EFRA committee and hearings did a pretty good job of dismantling it, and its influence in Hilary Benn’s subsequent policy was minimal at best. You are right though about the bizarre way King justified his report by claiming that science should be free of practical considerations.

  2. Thanks, Gareth. I take your point that the King report could be considered a form of peer review of the ISG report, and you are right that King sought the advice of other field experts when writing his report. However, I think when you compare the two reports side by side, King’s is extremely weak in terms of the detail in which he considers the evidence, and he makes many critical assertions on the ISG’s conclusions, without sufficient effort to provide an explanation, or back it up with evidence. As such, the ISG quite easily picks apart his report in their response.

    I also personally wouldn’t consider a DEFRA committee hearing a robust peer review process, when compared to the volume of papers written by ISG experts on the topic, which were published through peer-review in well-respected scientific journals. Although, you are right that the ISG report in its entirety didn’t go through peer review, which does raise an interesting question more generally on the extent to which Government scientific advice should go through the traditional peer review process.

  3. Hi Joel, I think you’re right about it being wrong to leave scientific scrutiny to parliamentary committees. The standard of scrutiny and debate can be variable at best. In defence of EFRAcom though, they had followed this through from the beginning. Certainly Michael Jack was very knowledgeable, and he did just as good a job as John Bourne did in his evidence at dismantling David King. I was there at the meeting: it was like all reports describe it, pretty electric. And maybe that is when the best scientific scrutiny happens, when the construction of scientific knowledge is made very public, rather than limited to a rather narrow and secretive peer review process. The public’s (and that includes farmers) involvement in the construction of knowledge is a key issue in the TB debate, just as it is with other environmental issues.

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